Matthews: Unassuming As Ever, Eli Manning On the Verge of NFL Immortality

Judged strictly by the numbers, Eli Manning is undoubtedly the second-best quarterback in Sunday’s NFC Wild Card game between the Giants and the Green Bay Packers. He can’t match Aaron Rodgers, who has a good shot to win his third NFL MVP this season, in any statistical category save one, which I’ll get to later.

In fact, of the five other potential Giants post-season opponents, the argument could be made that Eli Manning would run second to any of their quarterbacks. He has thrown more than twice as many interceptions (16) this season as Rodgers (7) and four times as many as Dak Prescott, a rookie thrust into emergency service. He’s thrown for nearly 1,000 fewer yards than Matt Ryan while being sacked nearly half as many times. His quarterback rating (86.0), if you’re into that sort of thing, is the lowest of all of them, more than seven points lower than that of Matthew Stafford, the runner-up.

And yet, in the category that truly counts, Eli Manning has all of them beat, including the indisputably great Rodgers. Unlike any of them, Manning has two Super Bowl rings, and if he and the Giants can orchestrate one more four-game winning streak, will enter the stratosphere occupied by only four other quarterbacks, all of whom I am sure you have heard of.

The difference is, Joe Montana and Tom Brady and Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman operated within QB-centric offenses that were designed for heroics by the man calling the signals. Eli Manning plays for the New York Giants, a team for which defense has always been king and this year is no exception.

That makes what Eli Manning has already done all the more remarkable, and what he, and the Giants, might yet accomplish this season so mind-boggling.

Eli doesn’t throw lasers like Tom Brady. He isn’t fast or elusive, doesn’t breathe fire, or to be brutally honest, give the appearance of being all that aware of what is going on around him at times. All he does, it seems, is win, and very often, he leaves you wondering how exactly he did it.

Which is all well and good, of course. It’s the kind of head-scratching we all love to indulge in the morning after a Super Bowl. Ten years later, I’m still trying to figure out how David Tyree caught that pass off the top of his helmet. But no matter, the Giants won the game and Eli Manning won the first of his (so far) two Super Bowl MVPs, a total matched  by Bart Starr and Terry Bradshaw and exceeded only by Brady and Montana, both of whom he could catch with a little bit of luck this year.

And is there any doubt that with one more Super Bowl win, Eli Manning becomes a first-ballot NFL Hall of Famer?

The phenomenal success of Eli Manning — have I mentioned he could also leapfrog his big brother’s haul of Super Bowl jewelry, minus the two failures, if the Giants go all the way this year? — is one of sports’ great stories, and great mysteries. It reminds you once again that to judge any athletic performance purely by the numbers is a fool’s errand.

Back in 2004, Giants GM Ernie Accorsi saw something in the runt of Archie Manning’s litter, and through a carefully-choreographed maneuver — remember how Eli and Archie publicly snubbed the San Diego Chargers before the draft, prompting the Giants to draft Philip Rivers, who they then traded to San Diego for Manning — Eli became a Giant. And for a couple of years, Giants fans debated whether it was all worth it. Rivers looked like the better QB out of the box, and Shawne Merriman, one of the players drafted by the Chargers with a pick from the Giants, became an All-Pro.

Meanwhile, Eli had a long, slow learning curve. He was turnover-prone and had a tendency to flip the ball away under pressure. He didn’t have the look or presence of a big-time quarterback.

Well, in retrospect the qualities that seemed to disqualify Eli Manning for stardom in the big city may have turned out to be his greatest asset. He was not Broadway Joe, or even Frank Gifford. He was not going to wind up on Page Six or in a bar frequented by gamblers. He didn’t pal around with Ann-Margret or marry a Victoria’s Secret model. He wasn’t going to accidentally shoot himself in a nightclub. And through it all, he always retained that slack-jawed look of a kid who wasn’t quite sure of where he was, or why. And that may be why, under the most pressure-filled of circumstances, Eli Manning seems to come up biggest.

He is not affected by the temptations  and distractions of New York City, nor does he appear to be moved by the tabloid mentality of this town, which has torn into him on more than one occasion, even after the two Super Bowl wins. He seems not so much to shrug off pressure as to be oblivious to its very existence.  His indifference is our bliss.

So when it comes down to writing the final chapter of this Giants season, there will be plenty of bold-faced names in addition to that of the quarterback. Odell Beckham, Jr.,for sure, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, maybe a kid like Paul Perkins, and of course, Ben McAdoo.

But if history has taught us anything, it is that Eli Manning will be there too, and probably in the lead of the story.

In his own quiet way, he has crept up to the edge of the Mt. Rushmore of NFL quarterbacks, and a month from now, we could well be carving his likeness into that same stone.

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